Robert Heinecken, “Mr. President… Mr. President… A, Set #2” (1987), silver-dye bleach prints, set of 10, 14 x 11 inches, print, each (all images courtesy Rhona Hoffman Gallery)

CHICAGO — The mass media culture born in the postwar era had a somewhat twitchy, sometimes irritable twin: our anxiety about mass media. Fears abounded: mass media would make us passive, manipulate our desires, corrupt our polity, and separate us from each other by substituting the private screen for the public square. Some even worried that mass media would separate us from ourselves, as we let movie stars and reality-show personalities live, love, and socialize for us.

Robert Heinecken (1931–2006) is best understood as an artist in relation to a tradition born of this media anxiety, stretching from Marshall McLuhan through the Situationists and on to Adbusters magazine and photoshopped memes; a tradition that has sought to reclaim agency in a world of omnipresent mediated images. “The mass media is nature,” Heinecken once said, recognizing the pervasiveness it has achieved in modern life. Although he founded the photography program at UCLA, where he taught for 30 years, he was never really a photographer in the classic lens-and-darkroom sense. Instead, he called himself a “paraphotographer,” someone who worked with the photographed image. Coming of age in the Los Angeles scene that gave us Ed Kienholz and Ed Ruscha, Heinecken worked primarily with the pre-existing photographic image, the photogram, and the photo-collage.

Installation view of Robert Heinecken: Mr. President… Mr. President… at Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago with “Mr. President… Mr. President… C, Set #1” (1987), silver-dye bleach prints, set of 10, 14 x 11 inches, print, each

A student of printmaking, many of Heinecken’s techniques involve image transfer more than image capture. The two central works on display in Robert Heinecken: Mr. President… Mr. President… at Chicago’s Rhona Hoffman Gallery are what Heinecken called “videograms”: sets of images made by placing photographic paper over a television screen, turning it on for a moment and then quickly switching it off. “Mr. President… Mr. President… C, set #1” and “Mr. President… Mr. President… A, set #2” (both 1987) each consist of 10 videogram images taken from the same Iran-Contra-era Ronald Reagan press conference. While the images in the two pieces are different, the same press conference text is superimposed over each set of images. The text itself is banal and, with the exception of a stray proper noun, could come from virtually any administrative speaker in any context — which is, of course, the point. Heinecken gestures toward the plasticity of these words, their evasiveness and opacity:

“I’m glad you asked me that.”

“I’ve been reading a great deal about…”

“good management policy… working miracles.”

“You see, I’m old fashioned… so I said to them quick…”

“…write down a correction often…”

“… the Tower Commission report…”

“I will keep my eyes open for…”

“…the twelve million dollar… bank account.”

“But let me just… hang over their shoulder…”

“… and so forth.”

In “Mr. President… Mr. President… C, set #1,” these words are superimposed on close-ups of President Reagan’s face, while in “Mr. President… Mr. President… A, set #2” the images show Reagan stepping from lectern and retreating into the dark. In the first series the words evoke an intimate, confident feeling; while in the second they come across as distant, guarded, and defeated.

Robert Heinecken, “If There Were No Such Thing” (from Whiskey and Cigarettes) (1990), silver dye bleach print, 10 x 8 inches, print, unique

A fan of chance and the lucky find, Heinecken took every possible advantage of living in a media-saturated environment. He loved the juxtaposition of images in magazines, for example, and used photographic contact paper to create images that superimposed the recto and verso from a single magazine page onto one another. Two pieces in this exhibition come from Whiskey and Cigarettes (1990), a series made with this technique and consisting of cigarette ads superimposed on whiskey ads. The juxtaposition is striking: a smooth and sophisticated idealized masculinity set against equally fictitious rugged, Wild West images of manhood. 

The most powerful works in the show, though, are the 13 modified magazines displayed on an angled shelf along one gallery wall. These fall into two categories: what Heinecken called “revised magazines,” in which he cut through pages to create complex compound images; and “compromised magazines,” made by combining images from different magazines in the same binding, either by the transfer of pages from one source to another or by overprinting images from one magazine onto the pages of another. As with his videograms, the techniques are remarkably simple; the real ingenuity lies less in craft than in keeping an eye open for fortuitous happenstance, or for the opportunity to intervene.

Robert Heinecken, “Revised Magazine / Maidenform” (1993), revised magazine, 11 x 8.5 inches, edition 2 of 3

The revised and compromised magazines are tremendously rich in surprises, visual wit, and disturbing conjunctions of image and text — but as objects these sliced-and-hacked magazines from the 1980s and ’90s are simply too vulnerable and too valuable for the casual observer to leaf through. Even the limited view afforded in the gallery’s display, though, demonstrates Heinecken’s political edge. An article on homosexuality in the military is cut away to reveal the phrase “comfort at work” on a successive page, while a menswear ad is sliced to reveal an image of a woman in a gender-subversive amalgam. Another cutaway, pairing an African-American man brutalized by the police with a smiling white woman in a cheerleader pose, highlights the constant proximity of the horrific and the chipper in American media. Some images have been modified less by Heinecken’s intervention than by the passage of time: the image of Lani Guinier, who features prominently in one revised magazine, is less iconic today than it once was, and a smiling Bill Cosby in an old Kodak advertisement will never again signify blandly respectable domesticity, as it once did. “Why now?” is a valid question for a show of works from the 1980s and 1990s, but in this case the work’s contemporary relevance is immediate. The media is increasingly our nature, our ecosystem, and we need Heineken’s art more than ever.

Robert Heinecken: Mr. President… Mr. President… continues at Rhona Hoffman Gallery (1711 West Chicago Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) through April 13.

Robert Archambeau is a poet and critic whose books include The Kafka Sutra, The Poet Resigns: Poetry in a Difficult Time, Inventions of a Barbarous Age: Poetry from Conceptualism to Rhyme Home and Variations,...